Then and Now – Lillian Gish
By Seymour Peck
The New York Times – Sunday, April 17, 1960
AT 6, Lillian Gish became an actress, not out of love, but out of necessity. “We were very poor,” she says,” and the job paid $10 a week.” Today at 61, Miss Gish is still an actress, not out of necessity, but out of love.
When her close friend Mary Pickford phoned her recently, Miss Gish told her she had been working very hard “I was on television, doing ‘The Grass Harp’ for ‘The Play of the Week, ‘” Miss Gish said. We had twelve days to learn it and do it. The last day we worked twenty-two hours.” A note of pride entered her voice. “I’m still the iron horse if I can work twenty two hours.” The “iron horse,’ looked slender, dreamy, fragile and wistful in “The Grass Harp” and was cheered by TV critics like some new acting discovery. But the sweet, gentle, innocent maiden lady Miss Gish portrayed on TV was, to some viewers, only a mature rendering of the characterization that made her one of the immortals of the movies in the great silent days, thirty to forty-five years ago.
The Gish image first emerged in the films of the pioneering director D. W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation,” Hearts of the World,” Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm”-and then took on –a dazzling, starry glitter in such post … Griffith romances of the Twenties as .. The White Sister,” Romola,” “La Boheme,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and The Wind.”
The images tell you what we tried for.” Miss Gish said recently in her quietly elegant living room on East Fifty-seventh Street. “The essence of femininity. Mostly, in those movies, I was a virgin. We tried for virginity, in mind, in looks, in body, in movement. “Not that I enjoyed this-to attract and hold the interest of an audience with nothing but goodness is difficult; goodness becomes dull so quickly. It’s so much easier to win an audience with a little wickedness.
I was lucky with Sean O’Casey. When I did his ‘Within the Gates’ on the stage in 1934, I didn’t have to work half so hard as I used to in movies. I was The Young Whore and the audience was interested before the curtain even went up …
“That virginal character hadn’t anything to do with me,” Miss Gish observed matter of-factly. Yet it appealed to, and deeply touched, millions of Americans, Europeans, Asians-and possibly some Eskimos and Hottentots -as few portrayals have since movies began.
THE pretty, helpless, virtuous and spiritual girl tossed about by a cruel world, was a triumphant creation, so eloquent as to make language almost unnecessary. And how cruel the world was: constantly in her movies MissGish suffered and was buffeted about by outrageous fortune. She was beaten to death, or ravaged by consumption, or driven out into a blizzard or persecuted by a narrow minded community. She might find love, but only to lose it.
All this anguish brought tears and sympathy from the most hardened audiences. When one saw a Gish movie, the highest praise he could bestow was, .. Gee, did I cry!”
Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898, Miss Gish does not remember becoming an actress six years later, nor even wanting to become one. “It all happened before my memory,” she said. Her father and mother brought her and her younger sister Dorothy to New York by way of Dayton, and Baltimore, Md., where the father had a small candy store. In New York her parents separated and to support herself and her two small girls, Mrs. Gish got a job acting with a Twenty third Street stock company.
“Mother was getting $15 a week and we were living on it, Miss Gish said. “We had one room, on Eighth Avenue around Twenty-first Street. At night she’d put us to sleep and go to the theatre. Baby sitters? Oh, no, she’d just leave us, there wasn’t anything else to do..
“Matinee days she’d take us with her, and one day an actress who was going out on the road stopped in at the dressing room, saw me, and said to mother, ‘If you’d let me have her. -‘ They needed a child in her company, and I looked right for it.”
LILLIAN. golden – haired and wide eyed, went traveling in a typical blood-and-thunder melodrama of the day, In Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time Dorothy, who was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy, in ‘East Lynne.” Each child earned $10 a week . .
The next year, 1905, mother and daughters were able to get roles together in one touring show. “We grew up this way,” Miss Gish said. “all around the country. At first mother had to teach us our parts but then she taught us to read and to write-in our dressing rooms.
We were educated this way: if we went to a town, say Detroit, mother took us to an auto factory, to see how it was all done. If we were playing in the South, she took us on a street car out of the city to cotton fields, to pick a little cotton, to watch a cotton gin. At Gettysburg she took us out to the battlefield with her history book in her hand and we had our history lesson right on the spot.” we had a wonderful mother,” Miss Gish went on. “From my mother we got great security-the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was the more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters, to make them know responsibility and meet the world head-on. ‘I didn’t use to feel this way. But an earIy insecurity and learning what to do with it and conquering it-this can bring maturity and contentment later on.” As children, Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith. In summers, between road tours, the Gishes and the Smiths-Gladys, her mother, sister and brother-sometimes shared an apartment in New York to save on rent. In 1912, returning from the road, Lillian and Dorothy went to look up Gladys at the Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. It was with some difficulty that they found their friend. She had changed her name to Mary Pickford. A fantastic new world – movies was opening up to Mary under the guidance of D.W. Griffith. Lillian made her screen debut as an extra in a Mary Pickford movie. The next year David Belasco engaged Lillian for her first Broadway play, “A Good Little Devil,’ in which Miss Pickford again had the lead. From Broadway, Miss Gish followed D. W. Griffith to California, to become the very symbol of pure womanhood in his movies. She shared with him the excitement of discovering and shaping a new art form, of seeing it grow, of experimenting with ideas, stories, techniques.
We worked wild hours, Saturdays, Sundays. There wasn’t any place as interesting as the studio, Miss Gish said. Everyone just lived for those pictures.” Miss Gish was a member of the Griffith company from 1913 to 1922. In time an awareness that the public had made a star of her came upon Griffith. “He told me to go out,” she said. “He said, ‘You know about as much as I do. I can’t pay you the money you’re worth, you go out and get it.
Late in 1922 Miss Gish helped organize the first American company to shoot a movie in Italy. The movie was “The White Sister.” It cost $270,000, eventually took in $4,000,000-and Miss Gish had a financial, aswell as artistic, stake in it. , Through the Twenties her career flourished. Gish, Garbo and Mary Pickford-some historians regard these as the three great women’s names of the decade. Miss Gish ultimately undertook her first talking picture. “One Romantic Night” was a light, sophisticated comedy from a Molnar play, “The Swan.” Cast as a cold princess Miss Gish must have surprised that multitude which cherished her as a helpless, beaten-down poor innocent. It was 1930, a troubled year in the United States. The movie did not succeed. Perhaps the age of innocence had passed for both America and Miss Gish.
The actress came back to New York. One night she had dinner with George Jean Nathan, Ruth Gordon and Jed Harris. Out of that evening came an invitation from Harris to play Helena in a revival of “Uncle Vanya!’ By her own choice Miss Gish was not starred in the production, afraid that a theatre audience would look on her as another “Miss Hollywood and hurl things at me from across the footlights.”
But the Chekhov revival and its leading actress both came through extraordinarily well. Miss Gish went on to other fine plays and performances in the theatre. “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father,” which she played for more than a year to Chicago’s delight. Since the early Forties she has accepted occasional, interesting character roles in movies. Her television bow came early; she starred in “The Late Christopher Bean” in 1949. Miss Gish’s latest movie – John Huston’s Western ‘The Unforgiven’ in which she is a pioneer woman who raises a foundling, Audrey Hepburn, in Texas around 1885. Miss Gish was intrigued by a role that was different from the ethereal ones of the old days. “I tried to make the character a Grant Wood,” she said, strong in spirit, strong in body. She carries a gun and yet is maternal and tender just woman.” CURRENTLY Miss Gish is working on a biography of her movie mentor, D. W. Griffith. She lives alone. She has never married and says she does not regret it.
“I think being a good wife is a twenty-four hour a day job. And certainly I haven’t lacked for male companionship in my life. I’ve had much more than I’ve deserved-wonderful, wonderful men and wonderful minds. I’m greatly indebted to George Jean Nathan, his great knowledge, his fine mind. Through him I knew Mencken and all the American writers of the Twenties as friends, and later on the writers of Europe.’
After fifty-six years as a performer, Miss Gish ponders future acting assignments with eagerness. “I’m always interested in new things,” she said … If it’s new and different, I want to know about it. I was born with a terrific curiosity.’
Published: April 17, 1960